THE RED-HEADED BALL OF FIRE
Born in 1916 in Columbus, Ohio, to Alvah and Ida Rowland. She was one of three sisters. Her father was an accountant who lost his job in the Great Depression. Money was tight for the family so Betty and her two sisters Dianne and Roz Elle, took to the stage to perform a vaudeville act so as to bring some money into the family. Betty was just 11.
“I wanted to go to college, but we lost our home and I wound up in show business.”
But vaudeville was dying out so after three years, all of the sisters decided to go into Burlesque Theatre (this involved striptease). Betty was 14.
She was initially in the chorus at Minsky’s Theatre, New York City, earning $16 a week, before graduating to being a star performer. On her first solo performance she was so enraptured by the music and dance, she forgot to take her clothes off. Her sisters were shouting at her from the wings. The crowd loved it. “The audience thought I was teasing them – but I wasn’t”.
Betty was petite at 5 feet 1 inch, and had her hair dyed flame red. Her dancing style was different from many other burlesque dancers. They danced slowly, aloof from and with disdain for, the audience. Not Betty. She danced with high energy, using the whole of the stage and with obvious enjoyment and a smile on her face. “I used to go as fast as I could”.
Her signature dance was ‘Bumps in the Ballet’. She used to say, “Let’s put more juice, into the Ballet Russes.”
She earned the nickname ‘The Red-Headed Ball of Fire’.
By now her sisters were stars in their own right. Dianne (now spelling her name Dian), starred at the Ettinge Theatre. She would dance (and strip) wearing a cap and gown and holding a pretend diploma. She was nicknamed ‘Society’s Favourite’.
Her younger sister Roz Elle performed at the ‘Paradise Theatre’. She did a very acrobatic performance wearing just gold paint which earned her the nicknames ‘The Golden Girl’ or ‘Goldie’.
All the sisters remained very close.
In 1937, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York, decided burlesque theatres were corrupting the city’s morals and he had a clampdown, shutting down many of them, including Minsky’s. Betty moved to Los Angeles, to Follies Theatre, and became a major sensation in California, rivalling Tempest Storm.
The LA papers dubbed her, “The biggest shake, Since the 1906 quake.”
She performed with burlesque comedians Abbott and Costello and also Phil Silvers. Lucille Ball was a massive fan, as was Orson Welles, who asked her to perform at his private parties.
At her height Betty was working 4 shows a day, 7 days a week.
In 1939 she was arrested for lewdness. In court a police officer acted out her act on the witness stand. She was fined $250.
In 1940 she was asked to be technical advisor on a Howard Hawks film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. She agreed – but when she realised Stanwyck’s character was a red-headed burlesque dancer (named Sugar-Puss O’Shea), who wore identical clothes to her – and the film was to be called ‘Ball of Fire’, she sued the producer Sam Goldwyn (of MGM).
She was unsuccessful due to “lack of evidence”, but the publicity made her even more famous, leading to film roles of her own. She was in the 1940 film ‘Let’s Make Music’ – and others.
Despite all of her success she claimed her striptease was, “more tease than strip.”
In 1943, a Californian wife was worried her husband was going out every night. She found out he was going to the Follies Theatre to see Betty. The lady insisted on going to the theatre to see what the fuss was about. When Betty was dancing, the lady jumped on stage and jabbed a lit cigarette into Betty’s thigh.
The following day Betty sued her for assault and battery.
But there was sadness. Her sister Dian was found dead in her apartment aged just 29. She had been weakened by scarlet fever as a child and died of heart failure related to that.
Her other sister, Roz Elle, retired early and married Belgian baron, Jean Empain, one of the wealthiest men in Europe. When he died of cancer she promptly married his extremely wealthy cousin.
In 1952, Betty was arrested again. Two policemen had demanded free entry to Follies Theatre and had been refused. They arrested the manager and Betty. In court she was charged with an ‘indecent performance’.
“It was not”, shouted Betty. “It was just two angry policemen.” The manager was sent to prison, as was Betty. She was sentenced to three months and fined $5,000 (about $46,000 in our money).
In prison she was treated badly. She was forced to mop the floors from 5am to 8pm every day.
But a local newspaper took up her cause, deeming it unfair and unjust. She was released after 3 weeks but still had to pay the fine out of her own pocket. She also had to agree not to perform locally, so she went on a national tour instead.
When she came back, she worked in Las Vegas.
In 1956 she married businessman and property developer Owen S. Dalton. The marriage was not a great success (they divorced in 1965) but she claimed he named the LA area ‘Rowland Heights’ after her, where he built many properties. (This is not actually true – it was named after the original owner of a farm, John Rowland, who sold his land to the city of Los Angeles in 1842).
Betty also had a long-term relationship with comedian Gus Schilling. They were often referred to as a married couple but they were not. He was already married – and was an alcoholic, dying in 1957.
She appeared in the 1965 film ‘Love and Kisses’, which was not a great commercial success. Her final film was ‘A Time For Dying’ (1969). This also turned out to be actor Audie Murphy’s last ever film.
She eventually retired when a friend bequeathed her a 50% share in Mr B’s Bar in Santa Monica, and she became the full-time manager. She said, “At least I no longer have to take my clothes off.”
She was a ferocious manager. There were strict rules about behaviour in the bar. Anybody who stepped over the line had a flashlight shined in their face before being thrown out.
In the 1990s, the bar was bought out by a national conglomerate, although Betty was persuaded to stay on as manager, which she did until 2009 when she was 93. She also worked in other bars and a French restaurant in Santa Monica, ‘Anisette’.
Betty stayed very close to her sister. They phoned each other every Sunday. Roz Elle died in very mysterious circumstances having fallen from an upstairs window in her late 80s. The case was left open – suicide or an accident, but Betty was convinced there was more to it.
With the inheritance from Roz Elle, Betty was able to buy her own apartment. She admitted she had never made much money from burlesque but, “It wasn’t shameful. I did nothing wrong. I supported myself my entire life.”
In 2010, she befriended writer Leslie Zemeckis, who made a film, ‘Behind the Burly Q’ (followed by a subsequent book, ‘The Story of Burlesque in America’ 2014). Betty was interviewed by Leslie many times. She gave Leslie her surviving gowns (she claimed to have been responsible for the split skirt) and posters, to add to Leslie’s burlesque collection-cum-museum.
Betty said, “People whisper, for heaven’s sake – they say ‘Do you know what she used to do?’ And they’re saying it like I was a porno worker or something. Well, they shouldn’t whisper. I was a dancer. It was the only thing I knew how to do – and I was a success at it.”
Betty unexpectedly appeared in a 2014 video – ‘Forbidden Cinema – Lost Blue Classics’. She was so pleased.
She moved into a care home just before her 100th birthday. She still had her hair dyed red every week and wore false eyelashes. And she could do a mean dance in her wheelchair.
She was always proud of what she’d done and who she worked with – but she hated lap dancing.
She was the last surviving burlesque queen.
At her death, Leslie Zemeckis said, “Once a queen, always a queen” – a phrase she had used on Betty’s 100th birthday card.
RIP – Redhead Incredibly Proud